It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve. I was at my parents’ retirement community. Mom and I had finished assembling lasagna for the next day. I had done some of her gift wrapping. I wanted a little rest before making a trifle and setting the dining room table for Christmas dinner for the whole family.
I was sitting on the couch in the living room by myself, staring at the lit tree. So pretty. I thought, “The only thing that could make this better is a glass of wine.” But my parents don’t care for alcohol and so they never have any in the house. It’s how I grew up, so it typically doesn’t faze me. I’m not much of a drinker.
In that moment, though, I could almost taste the crisp white wine I was craving.
Within a few minutes, there was a knock on the door. It was one of the neighbors that my parents are friendly with. She was holding a bottle in a pretty silver bag with a red ribbon around the neck. She wanted to wish us a Merry Christmas and came in to sit and chat for a little bit.
The moment she left I pulled the bottle out of the bag. A nicely chilled bottle of white that her daughter had brought back from Florence. I gasped. A Christmas miracle! I had manifested a refreshing treat.
And then … the hunt for a corkscrew ensued. The kitchen. The garage. The basket in the laundry room cabinet. The breakfront in the dining room.
No, no, no and no.
You want a happy, thirst-quenching ending to this story, yes?
Too bad. This is where it ends. No wine for Nancy. Just a lot of laughter as my mother and I cracked up at the absurdity. And then my father launched into a story about how my grandfather made so much wine growing up and that it was so available that he got sick of it.
I’ve since been asked why I didn’t try to borrow a corkscrew from that same neighbor. But did I really want her to realize she’d brought a lovely gift to a home that doesn’t know what to do with a bottle of wine? I wanted to keep her festive intention intact.
My real point in sharing this story is that I think a lot of us could do a better job of keeping it real when it comes to what actually goes on during the holidays. That’s the thing about this time of year. The expectations. And our misguided projections that everyone is doing it better or having more fun than us.
Maybe we can all do ourselves a favor and lose the rose-colored holiday glasses and just be and accept whatever the meals and visits are – mad, dysfunctional, fun, tense, warm, cold, loving, sweet, surprising, disappointing, uplifting.
It’s funny. Those with family traditions often idealize them. Those who feel lonely this time of year – there are a lot of married/coupled folks in this category, by the way – tend to think the holly is greener on the other side of the fence. This family has it together – what is their secret? How come that couple moves seamlessly from his family gathering to hers? Why does her husband always get her exactly what she wants? Their turkey always looks like it came out of Bon Appetit – how is that possible?
Relax. You’re not the Charlie Brown to their Norman Rockwell.
After the fruitless corkscrew search, Mom and I hit the kitchen to make the trifle. I’ve made these a few times; they’re a nice complement to homemade cookies and the cheesecake we often serve. Last year the whole trifle was built around a massive baking error. We had attempted pignoli cookies and had made a stupid (in retrospect) substitution in the recipe; the result was flat cookies that tasted great but couldn’t be peeled off the baking pan without crumbling. That crumble turned out to be a delicious layer in a vanilla custard trifle.
This time I had done a little research and was making a cappuccino-flavored trifle. The recipe called for two and a half cups of milk. We only had two cups of whole milk, so I used a half-cup of half-and-half with it. The consistency was gloppy instead of like custard. I pressed on, folding in whipped topping as instructed. Gloppier. Ugh. A dash of 2% milk and some vanilla extract helped things along, but by this point Mom – who had been cutting pound cake into chunks — and I were wiping away tears we were laughing so hard.
It turned out OK, although it didn’t look nearly as appetizing as the photo in the recipe. Thank God I don’t have illusions of a Martha Stewart Christmas. In fact, I was so wiped out from all the prep that when it came to our table I set out red Solo cups instead of glasses. I’m the only one in the family that prefers a real glass (why, yes, I am a princess), so I put one out for myself.
The next day, after Christmas dinner, I saw the Solo cups being loaded into the dishwasher and shook my head. Then I grabbed them and threw them in the garbage. Yes, the ongoing family argument – why would you bother using disposable cups instead of nice glasses if you’re going to wash them? I still don’t know the answer to that one. The logic eludes me.
And so it goes.
It’s magical. It’s drudgery. It’s magical. It’s drudgery.
Somewhere in between is our reality.
Perfect is overrated.